Janda Raker

© Copyright 2021 by
Janda Raker

Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash
                                                     Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash

Like most gods, campground gods are subtle, almost impossible to perceive, difficult to determine their wishes and the results of their judgments. My mom had always told my brother and me to leave the world a better place than we found it, and I have taken that literally, in many ways. I wipe off countertops in public restrooms, volunteer for social-justice organizations, sat on the board of the local PTA, vote, and of course, tidy up campgrounds I stay in, always trying to pick up litter around my campsite.

Now, of course, I wonder if Mother really told us that, or did my brother and I create it in our own minds? And there seemed to be an underlying implication that some benefits accrued, though I wasn't clear exactly what they might be. If camping, perhaps good weather, no damage from storms, even friendly neighbors, or functional camping equipment. And of course, alternatively, leaving litter or not taking time to at least do my best to tidy up an area would surely result in some heretofore unknown, negative outcome. On Padre Island National Seashore in the Gulf of Mexico, south of Corpus Christi, Texas, following Mother's instructions turned out to be an extreme dictate.

In our later years, my husband, Lyle, and I have been less adventurous than earlier and less energetic, but the two of us still had the desire to travel. Tents and Eurail passes had given way to a four-wheel-drive pickup camper. So with our little dog, Lindy, and the baggage of Lyle's 81 and my 76 years, off we went, heading 800 miles south of our home in Amarillo, to the Gulf of Mexico. 

We'd given our wonderful Folbot, a 17-foot folding double kayak, to my young, fit nephew, and we'd replaced it with a bright orange, 15-foot inflatable Advanced Elements double kayak, much lighter and easier for us to pack into the back seat of our crew-cab pickup.

Lyle and I had waited until after Spring Break, which can wreak havoc on travel plans, so we headed toward Corpus Christi in mid-April. About 500 miles south of our home in Amarillo, I-37 headed us south out of San Antonio, with another two hours’ drive south to Corpus. State Highway 358 took us farther south, onto the JFK Memorial Causeway. A bridge, an overpass? It’s one of my favorite stretches of road anywhere, as it heads upward and then down, with the water finally in sight, over the narrow Laguna Madre, perhaps 2 miles wide there, straight toward the Gulf. It dropped us at the junction of State Highway 361 and Park Road 22. The highway heads north a short distance to Mustang Island State Park, another fabulous destination, between Corpus Christi Bay and the Gulf. The Park Road 22 goes down Padre Island. It is also called South Padre Island Drive, but you can’t even drive to the little town of South Padre Island by driving down that road because of the Port Mansfield Channel, 60 miles south, a man-made watery passageway from the Gulf to Laguna Madre that blocks any road from passing on down.

A south turn on Park Road 22 had us driving down the middle of that barrier island near the eastern shore, with a full view of the glistening Gulf, often less than half a mile to our left. Padre Island is the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world! Squadrons of 6 to 15 huge brown pelicans sailed along beside us, occasionally executing their “plunge-dive” into the water for fish. Whitecaps decorated the surf.

Rolling our truck windows down, Lyle was pleased to inhale the scent of salt water. We drove south about 15 miles to Malaquite Campground, the National Park campground near the north end of the island, facing the Gulf. (It’s pronounced “mala-keet,” named after a Native American from the area, long ago.) The wind blew hard off the water during our drive on that portion of the beach. Half the paved campsites faced the Gulf, and the rest faced the western side of the island, toward the 6-foot-tall dunes and Laguna Madre beyond, with the restroom and warm shower facilities in the middle, about 50 campsites in all. We decided to stay there one night—for a nominal fee—and chose a site facing the water, with a shelter over the picnic table, and took our showers. The afternoon temperature was a perfect 75 degrees, just about what it would be for the high, almost the entire next 14 days of our stay. Lyle and I walked our dog through the camp area and down the road a ways and back, and of course, I picked up some trash along the way, sticking it in my pants pocket, just a few cigarette butts, twist ties, and beer cans. There wasn’t much to pick up, just enough to nominally appease the campground gods. Back at our camp, we pulled out our foldable camping chairs and enjoyed watching the birds over the water. Later, the sound of the surf lulled us to sleep.

Next morning, Lyle headed us farther down the island. We drove about half a mile farther south along the beach road, to Malaquite Vistors Center, and stopped to get information about our camping options. I’d heard of Bird Island Basin, a camp area on the west side of the island, facing Laguna Madre, where the windsurfers who come literally from all over the world to partake of the ideal conditions in the Laguna Madre—the large shallow bay between the island and the mainland—love to camp and play. It’s 130 miles long, 4 to 6 miles wide, and only about 3.6 feet deep, on average. Consistent strong winds in that area provide for great water sports. I wanted to go there for a couple of hours, just to see. So Lyle drove back north about 3 miles and turned left at the sign. About a mile and a half to the west, we reached the shore of the lagoon. There was a shop where windsurf gear could be rented, as well as gourmet coffee, beer, and snacks purchased.

And there were campsites all along the shore to the north of the concession, with no facilities, just packed sand, some interspersed with deep green sea purslane and sea heliotrope, and with many campers parked with their back ends within about 6 feet of the water. I suggested that might be a good place to camp, maybe even a great spot to try out our new kayak, with no possibility of being blown to Cuba.

As Lyle drove along the line of campers, I thought all possible sites were filled. Except, at the next to the last site in the line, there was a vacancy! He quickly backed in, with the door at the back end of our camper facing the lagoon. What a treat! As we pulled into it, one side of our camper looked out toward a neighbor’s small pull-trailer, about 6 feet away, and the other side looked on a new, shiny mini motorhome. The motorhome left the next morning, and a steady stream of one-nighters went through that site. Of course, once I was out of the pickup, the wind wreaked havoc with my hair, freshly shampooed in the shower, but it seemed everyone else ignored their hair, so I tried to, as well.

We soon got to know the couple in the little trailer, not much younger than we, from New England. Fred was a skinny little guy, but in his black wetsuit and neon green cap, he was a major windsurfer! His wife, Marianne, was his support crew, and she was happy to do so. And our dogs even liked each other! The four of us soon became fast friends and spent much of that week together, sharing desserts, playing cards in the evenings, talking politics, and walking our dogs. Based on our instant friendship, I walked over to the kiosk and paid for 6 nights in that cool camp area!

Even in our camper, in the mornings, the smell of bacon frying, and in the evening, the smell of grilled steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs permeated. The campers all around really loved to eat.

But even with all that cooking, the camp area was amazingly clean, free of litter or debris. Fred explained that the same people come there year after year, look forward to getting together, and they all work hard to keep the area clean and tidy, wanting each other's approval. It was like a real community. The campground gods must love that place, those campers.

The next morning, Lyle and I assembled and inflated our new kayak, donned our life jackets, loaded up our gear and Lindy, and headed out from our campsite into Laguna Madre. Its name means “Mother Lagoon” in Spanish, probably because it’s large and nurturing. It’s scientifically fascinating, one of only six hypersaline coastal lagoons in the world, meaning it’s saltier than the ocean. That provides unique conditions that affect the wildlife that is abundant there, much of it endangered elsewhere.

We didn't go very far from shore at first, and the windsurfers didn't have any trouble staying away from us. Lindy, our small, curly, mixed-breed shelter dog who is part bichon, could be descended from those dogs that the Spanish sailors bred to accompany them on their global maritime explorations. She was perfectly happy sitting up and smiling in the center of our new inflatable kayak. Perhaps a mile to the north, a point of land jutted out, and we headed for it, thinking that would make a good distance, round trip, for our first journey out in our new vessel. Several black skimmers—vivid white-and-black water birds with long wings—banked and turned above the water near us, dragging their longer lower bright red bills in the water, skimming for small fish. However, before long, the wind came up, blowing straight at us, and the boat slopped along between the crests of the swells. Lyle and I had to reconsider our goal.

Shoulders burning with the effort of fighting the wind, we followed the shore for a while longer, and finally headed right, onto the packed, muddy beach near a small dock and parking area. Our day’s paddle was short by perhaps half the distance we'd intended to cover. Two possibilities arose: either try to paddle back to our camp, with the wind, though it would have been difficult to control the craft, or one of us could walk back the mile or so on the nearby trail, to our camp, get our truck, and drive back to pick up the other and the boat. Lyle decided on the latter. He took Lindy on her leash, and they went to get the pickup, while I began to take our gear out of the boat and dry it out in the breeze. On the other side of the dock was a small boat ramp and parking lot with several vehicles with boat trailers, where the traffic soon got busy, putting boats in and taking them out. And while I waited, I enjoyed picking up bits of trash—plastic bags, rubber fishing worms, cigarette butts, beer cans, and fishing line—while Lyle and Lindy took their morning walk. Several gulls were feeding and squawking. Lyle and Lindy soon returned, with the truck, and Lyle and I loaded the boat, partially deflated, into the camper, along with all our gear.

I was disappointed not to have achieved the goal we'd set, but the experience had given us insight into our capabilities and the attributes of our little craft. We needed to go earlier in the day, to beat the wind, and we'd need to air up the kayak a little tighter to make it run more smoothly in the water.

That evening, as the two of us sat out in our camp chairs with our new friends, watching the sun set beautifully over the lagoon, there was a reminder that the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway runs through the lagoon. Construction was finished on it in 1949, providing a safe, efficient pathway for large ships and barges to go over 1,000 miles, between Brownsville, Texas, and Carrabelle, Florida. Large towboats pull their trains of barges through the lagoon, a 12-foot-deep, 125-foot-wide canal, heading north or south to major ports. And so we enjoyed watching a 3-story-tall towboat push several low barges, heading north, perhaps to Houston.

A couple of days later, Lyle, I, and Lindy set out again. That time, early in the morning, when there was no wind. Our little kayak headed south out of our camp, following the shore of Laguna Madre, as it tended out to the southwest. The sailboards weren’t even out yet, so there was no danger of collision. And there was no certain point ahead that we paddled toward, because the nearest was probably two miles ahead, making a four-mile round trip, perhaps too far for us at our age. So our goal was toward the second of two tiny islands that we’d spotted about 1/3 of a mile offshore, though I didn’t want to get that far out, so we stayed close to shore. Gradually the wind was starting to come up, but it was behind us, so it was a help. And the windsurfers were coming out, but they weren’t near us yet. The incoming tide was toward the shore alongside us to our left, with the sea oats and sedge behind the beach got doused. When our kayak was even with the little grassy island, we turned toward the shore, and pulled up onto a mud flat to get out of our kayak and stretch a bit. With our water shoes on, we were able to get out into the slight incoming tide, which would likely be only one foot or so.
I invited and Lindy hopped out, on leash, into the shallow water, which she loves. She briefly lay down in the water, then stood and shook, spraying my legs in the process. Then she waded onto the mud flat, sniffing the muddy shallows, spotting a few minnows, and then inspecting the higher ground. I found a floating plastic bag and picked up a few paper cups and some cardboard from fishing gear dropped in the water. Fishing is a major enterprise in Laguna Madre, but not so much at the Bird Island area, as the windsurfers dominate the area. I picked up all the trash I found, but it was barely enough to appease the campground gods. In preparing to leave, I got Lindy situated on her perch in the center of the kayak, and I climbed into the front. Lyle pushed us off the shore and headed us back to our Bird Island camp. It was exciting that we had easily made it, with the help of the wind behind us, but then we headed into the wind. Farther out, to the north and south, were more of what looked like small islands, but which I found out were actually spoil banks, the piles of debris left over when the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was being dug through the lagoon. The paddling was much harder than outgoing, but the sight of the structures at the Bird Island campground made us aware that our campsite wasn’t far past them. And we made our way between the windsurfers, reaching our camp just as the big winds came up.

Success! We’d gotten as far as planned and were able to paddle back to camp, not haul our boat back in our truck!

On the fifth day at Bird Island, Lyle left our kayak set up, out in the wind and sun, to dry. The two of us walked with Fred and Marianne and the dogs, a hike to the boat launch. On the way, I found some depleted glow sticks, a beheaded Barbie, and lots of beer bottle caps, which I put in my shorts pockets. Again they were just a token appeasement for the powers that be, there anyway. And then the six of us walked out to the concession at our camp area for a Coke and back to camp for a game of cards and some Oreos, on our last evening together.

On the sixth day, Lyle and I packed up our little boat, pushed it into the back floor of the truck, and reluctantly parted from Fred and Marianne, after exchanging contact info and beginning to plan a trip together early the next fall. They were going to leave the next day, heading back toward home in Vermont. Our camper turned eastward, back out to the center of Padre Island, and headed south down the beach road, back to Malaquite Visitors Center for a shower—cold—and to check our e-mails using their internet access before heading south to select a campsite on the Gulf side. Having camped there several years earlier, we knew the drill. 

Near the road was a sign that said, “Please remove all trash—pack out more than you brought in.” That really spoke to me! I drove south another 2/3 of a mile, until the pavement of Padre Island's highway ended. There a sign warned that high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles were required if driving more than five miles down the island.

I drove along the packed sand, kind of a road alongside the head-high dunes and away from incoming and outgoing tides of the Gulf, and hunted for a spot we both liked that was vacant. The sand was light colored, tannish, well . . . sand colored. There are no designated camp sites, no picnic tables or shelters, and no restrooms. I paid the entrance fee to the park and got a permit to camp, though that was free. Campers are only allowed to stay in the park for 14 days consecutively, but that was fine because we stayed 1 night in Malaquite, 6 nights at Bird Island, and planned for 7 nights on South Beach.

This is free beach camping—most rare! Who has not come to a stretch of shoreline and wished to just set up camp? It's almost unheard of, to find such an opportunity these days, without restrictions, but there it is.

That time of year, many campers had already staked their claims, with a great diversity of camping units, from ancient motor homes to tents, from tidy pull trailers to pickup campers similar to ours. Driving on the dunes is not allowed. But occasional wide places between the dunes allow for campers to pull in, usually ten feet or more off the busy thoroughfare created by the traffic heading south down the island or others coming north, leaving the park.

So we drove down those first five miles and realized that the best spots were taken. There is a warning sign at five miles down the beach, stating that the rest of the way to Mansfield Pass—almost 60 miles—required a high-clearance 4WD, which our pickup is. But at our ages, in our 70s-plus, neither of us wanted to risk getting stuck because we might not have been able to dig ourselves out, we didn’t want to pay the possible thousands of dollars to have someone come get us out, and it was possible that we couldn’t get cell phone service to call someone for help. So our agreement was not to drive past that sign looking for a place to camp.

But we had seen a few possible locations for our rig. Most campers were about a third of a mile from the next, allowing some privacy, but not a total sense of isolation. It was like birds on a line, spaced apart, with new ones getting between those already there. I turned around and started back up the beach and chose a location about a mile from that last warning sign and four miles from the end of the paved road. The site wasn't wide enough to get our camper in between the dunes, without getting into the soft sand of the dunes, which was not allowed and not wise. But by parking parallel to the dunes, I could get far enough over that we could set up our small collapsible table and folding camping chairs between the dunes and our camper, shaded by either the tall dunes or the camper most of the day, and somewhat sheltered from the strong north wind, and still be safely out of the traffic lane and away from the dust kicked up by passing vehicles. Our truck faced north, with the door on the back of the camper opening to the south, next to the widest space between our dunes, and in that area, I set up our portable solar panels and battery, to spend each day collecting the energy from the sun to power our lights and electronics each night. A satisfactory site, surrounded by the coveted smell of salt air!

The tannish-brown foredunes—the dunes just past the flat sand of the beach—in that area are about eight feet high, almost as tall as our camper, with quite a bit of vegetation running along the tops—sea oats, beach morning glory, beach evening primrose, and others, with vines, leaves, and purple blooms. Lyle could even smell those little blossoms from inside our camper. Lines of sea birds flew past our camp—mostly laughing gulls or brown pelicans, sometimes 20 in a line, about 10 feet higher than the dunes, their shadows like those of a squadron of aircraft flying in formation in an airshow. Killdeer and plovers scurried along the tideline searching for tidbits to eat. Smaller birds flitted around between or on top of the dunes, chasing insects and socializing. Most were too small and quick for me to identify, but I saw a yellow-throated warbler and a couple of different flycatchers. What a lovely start to our week of beach camping!

But as we'd chosen our site and parked, I had seen trash scattered along that portion of the beach, even out in the “road” where vehicles moved north and south on the island! There were buckets and boards and ropes and small mounds of sand that turned out, upon further inspection, to contain plastic—straws, plates, cups, bottles, bottle caps, toothbrushes, flip-flops, throwaway toys, and even toilet brushes. The location we'd chosen seemed to have even more of that than most of the areas we'd driven past—even a giant, black hump which turned out to be a plastic tank, about ten feet in diameter, half buried at an angle in the packed sand near the tide line. Maybe these were among the reasons that space was vacant. 

With my mom's instructions ringing in my ears, considering the implications of attempting to please the campground gods of Padre Island, I began to question the wisdom, the benefits of our free beach camping! 

After setting up our camp, I made our lunch of freeze-dried chicken teriyaki, crackers, and fresh baby carrots, and Lyle--still recovering from a hip replacement a few months earlier—stretched out for a nap in our camper bed. Because of the wind, I did not bother to comb my hair but stepped out of the camper to begin my task. Near the opening into the dunes was a pile of trash already gathered. Good start! A faded yellow plastic crate was full of debris—a couple of foam buoys from a fishing net, a six-foot length of red nylon rope, several plastic plates, lengths of blue curled gift-wrapping ribbon tied around the necks of withered balloons, lots of broken plastic straws, and many other smaller bits of flotsam and jetsam in the bottom of the crate. Even a foot into the dunes, I saw a bit of red plastic in the sand. I reached for it and pulled, and the grainy sand collapsed behind it, revealing more evidence of plastic. Before fifteen minutes was up, I had created a major mound containing the evidence of a child's entire birthday party, enough to serve a score of people. 

Bored with the dune, I moved out onto the "road.” At midday, the traffic was light, with only an occasional pickup or Jeep passing. The wind blew hard there, probably a constant thirty-five miles per hour, with gusts into the forties, pushing loose debris flying down the beach to the south. Though the temperature was in the low seventies, the wind chill must have been about sixty, so I put on my rain jacket, to keep warm, and I refrained from changing to shorts, though the midday sun seemed pleasant. And I went to work in earnest. I'd brought out a couple of Walmart-type bags, but in minutes the first was full, and I started on the second. The packed sand made the chore a little more challenging than in the dunes. I'd see a bit of debris stuck in the sand, reach for it, find it too embedded, use my tennis shoe to kick around it, loosen it, lift a corner free, and depending on how big the piece was, pull it out, or kick some more, or use another piece of trash to dig around it to free it. I put small pieces into the bag, and larger ones I carried over to the crate to add to the collection beside it, which was growing rapidly. Two bags and two large mounds in just over an hour—it was going to be a huge chore. And I began to worry about how we could get all the debris back to the park-service headquarters. I was beginning to feel discouraged, and I'd just started.

My original goal for this portion of the trip was working on my travel writing for a website with which I'm connected. So I decided to rest my back for a while and start an article. I brought my iPad out to the little table beside the camper. Sand wasn't blowing there, so I spent an hour or so writing about a trip we'd made to South America. Then as I paused and headed to the camper door to get a canned Coke for inspiration, an older white Suburban pulled in behind us, near the crate and other debris, and a sixtyish couple got out. The khaki-clad woman began to place the trash into big black, plastic bags, and her Tilley-hatted husband placed the larger items into the back of their vehicle. I went over to greet them and learned that they were volunteers, had been for several years. The U.S. Government provided the Suburban and the bags, just for this use, to enable campers to gather up the debris on the beach, leave it in accessible places, for the volunteers to come by several days a week, pick it up, and haul it off.

They mentioned more info I hadn’t seen, on the sign about taking out more trash than you bring in, about free plastic bags and dumpsters to put it all in. But even with all that info, at the rate I was picking up trash, Lyle and I would have had to drive out every day to those dumpsters. But instead these lovely volunteers were going to come pick it all up. Oh, what a relief! I was delighted. Apparently the campground gods were smiling on me and on the helpful volunteers!

That night, after dinner and a game of Rummikub, when I turned out the camper lights, I went outside to look at our surroundings. Wow! It wasn’t totally dark because the water of the Gulf was reflecting starlight. Very few of the campers had lights on. Perhaps they too were outside looking at the darkness. The few battery lights from campers even miles away were discernible as artificial. And from far down the beach, I could see a vehicle coming, though it took a long time to go past us and our quiet campsite. It was a really easy place to sleep.

For the next week, I was content with doing a little travel writing about South America and spending the majority of each day picking up trash, with some help from Lyle, putting it in bags or stacking the big stuff in piles at our "corner," and visiting with the volunteers. I roamed a quarter of a mile or so up and down the beach, out to the ebb-tide line and up into the edges of the dunes. So many plastic straws, most broken into bits, hard to pick up, made me swear off drinking through straws forever. Besides all the plastics, I found boat batteries, crab claws, a ladder, a dead manta ray, tennis balls, many deceased jelly fish including Portuguese men-of-war, hiking boots, and bodies of foolhardy gulls whose plunge-dives had been into too shallow water.

The lady volunteer shared with me that she had a terminal brain tumor, was no longer able to drive or read but was really enjoying her work out on the beach. I loved her positive attitude! Her husband reminded me that most of this debris that I was accumulating was likely a result of Hurricane Harvey, which had recently slammed the Gulf Coast, not just carelessness by picnickers and campers. That information made me feel better, knowing the need for much of our labors was created by nature rather than human irresponsibility.

So by the end of the week, my half-mile stretch of beach was obviously cleaner, looking more like nature no doubt intended. I felt proud of what I had accomplished, at least until the next hurricane—or birthday party. And I did have to deliberately and sadly ignore the trash along other segments of the beach as we headed north toward home. 

The campground gods were obviously happy with me, rewarding me with less wind each day. Or perhaps the wind wasn't lessening, but maybe I was just getting used to it. Or was I getting better at picking up trash? Or . . . ? What if that's how all gods operate? What if there never is reward or punishment but rather just our own interpretation of whether we had fulfilled our part of the bargain . . . and whether they did. What a trip!

Janda Raker is an Amarillo native and award-winning travel writer and essayist who also writes profiles and short stories. She has published profiles in The Writer magazine. Her travel articles have been published in Amarillo Style, UltraRunning, WingWorld, and others. She is now writing travel articles online for HubPages. She edited and published two anthologies of very short stories--Flash Tales and Flash Tales 2. She is a retired educator with an MA in English and has critiqued and edited for many authors.
She travels extensively, camping and enjoying nature as well as big cities around the world.  Check her website, which includes links to her online travel articles—www.TravelswithJanda.com .

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